September 23, 2010
Bolt-action rifles continue to evolve, but have they really improved on Paul Mauser's design?
Mauser. It's the family name whose notoriety in the firearms field rivals that of Browning. It's the company with the factory in Oberndorf that supplied rifles to German troops in two World Wars. It's the brand that became the standard for high-power magazine rifles across all of Africa. It's the mechanism that has endured after more than a century of refinement while other designs have appeared, flourished, then passed away.
Most shooters associate the Mauser moniker with the Model 1898 bolt rifle. This was not the first Mauser rifle, however. In fact, the 98 came about when Paul Mauser was 50 years old.
Like his contemporary John Browning, Peter Paul Mauser was a gifted designer who could think mechanisms onto paper and fashion parts without drafting them. Both men showed an uncanny ability to build guns that worked, with robust parts that didn't depend on tight tolerances for sure function. Both combined a mastery of mechanics with the artistry and inventiveness that marks genius.
Oddly enough, many riflemen still think of Mauser only as a machinist who adapted a door-latch to a firearm. Almost anybody could have done that, and some probably did it before Peter Paul Mauser.
In fact, one of his first experimental rifles derived from the turn-bolt action of the Dreyse needle-gun, German's primary shoulder arm in the Franco-Prussian War. The design intrigued an American, Samuel Norris, traveling in Europe as an agent for E. Remington & Sons. Norris offered Paul Mauser and his older brother Wilhelm financial incentive to convert the French Chassepot needle gun to fire metallic cartridges.
In 1867, they moved to Liege, Belgium, to begin work. When Norris failed to interest the French government in this new rifle, he bailed out of the agreement, and Paul and Wilhelm returned to Oberndorf. There the Mausers opened a gunshop, Wilhelm's business savvy complementing Paul's mechanical talent.
CZ's Model 550 utilizes a standard Mauser action for most chamberings; true big-bore calibers employ a square-bridge magnum action.
As the brothers struggled to establish their firearms business, the Royal Prussian Military Shooting School tested a Mauser rifle Norris had furnished earlier. It so impressed ordnance people that they asked the Mausers to make specific improvements.
They did and resubmitted the rifle, a single-shot breech-loader firing an 11mm black-powder cartridge. Early in 1872 the Mauser Model 1871 became the official Prussian shoulder arm. Elated, Paul and Wilhelm were soon informed that the Prussian army would pay them only 15 percent of what they'd been led to expect for design rights. Also, the new rifles were to be manufactured in government arsenals, not by the Mausers, who still needed work.
The brothers wound up with a contract to produce 3,000 sights for the Model 1871. A Bavarian order for 100,000 sights inspired them to build a factory in Oberndorf. Then the Wuerttemberg war ministry awarded Paul and Wilhelm a contract to build 100,000 rifles. To do this they formed a partnership with the Wuerttemberg Vereinsbank of Stuttgart to buy the Wuerttemberg Royal Armory. In February 1874, it became home to the new Mauser Bros. and Co.
This Mitchell's Mausers Tanke's
M63 is true to the original M98 design (except for the scope setup, of course).
The sprawling armory shipped its last Model 71 in 1878, six months ahead of schedule. Paul invented a single-shot pistol and a revolver, but neither sold. After Wilhelm died young in 1882, Mauser became a stock company. Controlling shares were bought by Ludwig Loewe & Co. of Berlin.
Seven years later, Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre (FN) was established in Liege to build Model 1889 Mauser rifles for the Belgian government. The 1889 was Paul's first successful smokeless-powder rifle and incorporated elements that established him as the dominant gun designer on the continent.
During the next six years he improved this rifle. One of the most important changes--a staggered-column, fixed-box magazine--appeared in 1893. By 1895 Paul had developed an action that would be perfected as the famous Model 1898.
Following its acceptance by the German Army on April 5, 1898, the Mauser 98 would quickly become the most popular military arm to that point in history. Exported to many countries, it would be built in many more. France, England, Russia and the U.S. designed their own battle rifles, but none surpassed the Mauser 98 in function or reliability.
After World War II, Mauser's business shifted toward the sporting trade and chose A.F. Stoeger Inc. of New York as its U.S. agent. By the end of the Depression there were 20 configurations in four lengths: magnum, standard, intermediate and short. The short or "kurz" version had a small receiver ring and came in only three chamberings: 6.5x50, 8x51 and .250 Savage. Magnum and kurz actions were made strictly for sporting use.
While surplus military Mausers have been sold at bargain prices, commercial versions always came dear. In 1939 a new Model 70 Winchester cost $61.25; that year a Mauser sporting rifle listed at $110 to $250. Square-bridge and left-hand actions cost substantially more.
Over the years, the Mauser action has been copied and modified, although it's up to you to decide whether it's ever been improved.
The 1903 Springfield rifle featured Mauser's dual front-locking lugs and an external extractor that snatched cases from the magazine. Its coned breech appeared soon after World War I in Winchester's first successful bolt rifle, the Model 54. The 54's ejector derived from a Charles Newton design and eliminated the need for a slotted locking lug.
The introduction of Winchester's Model 70 in 1937 provided American hunters with a refined Mauser with a better trigger.
Meanwhile Remington developed its Model 30, a sporting-class 1917 Enfield. The massive Enfield showed Mauser ancestry, but sportsmen shopping the surplus ads preferred the sleeker 98 and the Springfield.
Winchester's Model 70 debuted in 1937. It retained the coned breech, dual locking lugs, Mauser extractor and offset ejector of the Model 54 but wore a better trigger. The 54 trigger, like the Mauser's, had doubled as a bolt stop. Its long, heavy pull could not be adjusted. The Model 70 trigger could, thanks to a separate bolt stop that interrupts the left lug.
The Model 70's low, horizontal safety made the rifle compatible with scopes. A low-slung bolt handle mandated a receiver slot that served as a safety lug recess.
Remington's 721-722 series, announced in 1948, differed in two important ways from the Model 70. First, receivers came from tube stock, with a separate recoil lug between barrel shoulder and receiver ring. Such an arrangement was much cheaper in manufacture than the machining of a 71⁄2-pound slab of chrome-moly.
The other chief difference was in the bolt face, which featured a half-moon extractor clip in the rim encircling the recessed bolt face. There was no ejector slot; the plunger-style ejector operated through a hole in the bolt face. A recessed face did not allow for controlled-round feed because the cartridge had to be chambered before the extractor could engage.
During the early 1940s, Roy Weatherby had no rifles in which to chamber his magnum cartridges. In 1948, he began using commercial Mausers, which had become available from FN a year earlier. Strongly resembling military 1898 actions, these rifles had a low-swing checkered bolt handle, an easy-release floorplate and a single-stage trigger. The left-hand receiver slot was eliminated.
Other manufacturers began using the FN, as did many shooters building custom rifles. Browning employed it in its fine High Power series. It appeared in Herter rifles, also under the banners of Sako, Parker Hale, Colt, Marlin, H&R and High Standard. Refined, the FN became the Mark X.
The Mauser 98
quickly became the world's
predominant military arm, and countries raced to catch up. The U.S. answered with the Springfield 03, shown here.
During the mid-1950s Roy Weatherby and Fred Jennie developed the Mark V to accommodate the .378 and .460 Weatherby Magnums. The Mark V had a recessed face with a small extractor fastened to the side of the bolt head.
The round receiver wore an integral recoil lug. Roy used three sets of triple locking lugs in an interrupted-thread design, reducing bolt lift to 54 degrees. The "push feed" Mark V is essentially the same rifle now that it was in 1958.
That year Savage also introduced its Model 110, which featured a round receiver, a detachable bolt head and a barrel nut to secure the recoil lug and speed headspacing.
Little of substance has appeared from makers of bolt-action rifles during the last 50 years. To paint with a broad brush, you can clump the myriad new rifles into two groups: those with predominantly Mauser features and those with face-mounted extractors and trigger-mounted safeties.
By 1965, major American manufacturers had abandoned Mauser extractors and controlled-round feed. Plunger-style ejectors replaced mechanical kickers. In 1968 Bill Ruger announced his Model 77 with an aggressive claw. But those first M77 extractors were made to hop the rim of a chambered round, not suck it from the magazine.
The Ruger 77 Mark II, circa 1992, had controlled-round feed. It joined a new Winchester Model 70 from the New Haven custom shop. This 70, while retaining some post-64 features, wore a Mauser claw that worked like the original but was beveled to jump the rim of a chambered cartridge. In 1990 Winchester put this action into production, cataloging the rifles as Super Grades.
By 1994 most Model 70s had controlled-round feed. They were renamed Classics. Kimber's 84M (like the one pictured in the opening of this article) and 8400, along with Dakota's 76 and 97, retain that form, as does the Montana action.
In contrast, Weatherby, Savage, Remington, Browning, H-S Precision and, now, Mossberg, Thompson/Center and Smith & Wesson have chosen push-feed designs.
Howa rifles also fall in the latter group, as do Sakos and Tikkas. Husqvarna sporting rifles appeared in the U.S. around 1954, with the 98 extractor and a Model 70-style ejector that didn't require a split lug. Early Husqvarnas (sold too as the Sears M51) were later supplanted by the Model 8000, which had a Sako-style extractor and plunger ejector.
CZ-USA sticks to a Mauser mechanism for its standard chamberings. CZ Safari Classics in .404 Jeffery, .450 Rigby and .505 Gibbs get a square-bridge Magnum Mauser action.
There's also Mauser here in the USA (see sidebar) that imports M03 and M98 rifles from Germany. Receivers are machined from a single piece of steel, rifles fitted with high-grade wood. They're expensive but exquisite.
Ditto Mitchell's Mausers modern sporting rifles, which start at nearly $7,000 (Mitchell's offers historical 98K and other guns as well; visit mausers.org). And, of course, there are custom shops such as Empire Rifles (empirerifles.com) that build on the traditional Mauser actions.
Much more affordable is the practical Remington 798, with a Mark X-style action (short and long) in a laminated stock.
So where does that leave the modern hunter and shooter? The original 1898 action that Paul Mauser delivered to German troops still has no peer with regard to durability and function. Trigger and safety refinements, better steels and tighter tolerances possible with CNC machining render it the equal of any bolt mechanism designed since--at least for hunting.